Commentary Magazine


Posts For: July 30, 2007

Bookshelf

• What did Leonard Bernstein, Victor Borge, Dave Brubeck, the Budapest String Quartet, Johnny Cash, Noël Coward, Miles Davis, Doris Day, Bob Dylan, Vladimir Horowitz, John Gielgud, Glenn Gould, Michael Jackson, Marshall McLuhan, Albert Schweitzer, Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, Igor Stravinsky, and the original casts of Waiting for Godot and West Side Story have in common? They all recorded for Columbia. Gary Marmorstein’s The Label: The Story of Columbia Records is a breezily written primary-source history of the company whose artistically serious, technically innovative approach to the making of records—it was Columbia’s engineers who invented the long-playing record album in 1948—left a permanent mark on the history of American music.

Although Columbia was founded in 1889, it wasn’t until a half-century later, when it was bought by CBS, that it began its rise to cultural power. To an insufficiently appreciated extent, the label was soon reinvented in the image of one man, an aspiring classical composer turned record-company executive named Goddard Lieberson, whose wit, elegance, and unshakable self-assurance set the tone for Columbia’s postwar activities. Lieberson is more than deserving of a full-length biography of his own, but The Label offers the most detailed portrait to date of this spectacularly improbable character. A polymath who wrote a string quartet and a comic novel, Lieberson stole one of George Balanchine’s wives and used the profits raked in by such Mitch Miller-produced exercises in sugar-frosted pop banality as Rosemary Clooney’s “Come On-A My House” (as well as the Lieberson-produced original-cast albums of such Broadway musicals as South Pacific and My Fair Lady) to underwrite the recordings of the complete works of Stravinsky, Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and Anton Webern.

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• What did Leonard Bernstein, Victor Borge, Dave Brubeck, the Budapest String Quartet, Johnny Cash, Noël Coward, Miles Davis, Doris Day, Bob Dylan, Vladimir Horowitz, John Gielgud, Glenn Gould, Michael Jackson, Marshall McLuhan, Albert Schweitzer, Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, Igor Stravinsky, and the original casts of Waiting for Godot and West Side Story have in common? They all recorded for Columbia. Gary Marmorstein’s The Label: The Story of Columbia Records is a breezily written primary-source history of the company whose artistically serious, technically innovative approach to the making of records—it was Columbia’s engineers who invented the long-playing record album in 1948—left a permanent mark on the history of American music.

Although Columbia was founded in 1889, it wasn’t until a half-century later, when it was bought by CBS, that it began its rise to cultural power. To an insufficiently appreciated extent, the label was soon reinvented in the image of one man, an aspiring classical composer turned record-company executive named Goddard Lieberson, whose wit, elegance, and unshakable self-assurance set the tone for Columbia’s postwar activities. Lieberson is more than deserving of a full-length biography of his own, but The Label offers the most detailed portrait to date of this spectacularly improbable character. A polymath who wrote a string quartet and a comic novel, Lieberson stole one of George Balanchine’s wives and used the profits raked in by such Mitch Miller-produced exercises in sugar-frosted pop banality as Rosemary Clooney’s “Come On-A My House” (as well as the Lieberson-produced original-cast albums of such Broadway musicals as South Pacific and My Fair Lady) to underwrite the recordings of the complete works of Stravinsky, Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and Anton Webern.

In addition to writing about Lieberson, Miller, and John Hammond—the producer-talent scout who spent much of his celebrated career recording jazz and pop for Columbia—Marmorstein depicts a cast of lesser-known backstage characters equally worthy of recognition. George Avakian, who brought Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, and Miles Davis to Columbia and recorded some of their best-remembered albums, is given his due, as is Deborah Ishlon, the master publicist who first spread the word about Glenn Gould, and talked Stravinsky into writing his “conversation books.”

To write consistently well about a company that recorded everyone and everything from Liberace to Don Juan in Hell demands a degree of cultural competence not possessed by the average human being. While Marmorstein has done his homework—to the point of having read Lieberson’s forgotten novel 3 for Bedroom C and Ishlon’s equally obscure roman à clef Girl Singer: A Two Part Invention—he does not exhibit a complete knowledge of classical music. (Somebody at Thunder’s Mouth Press should have told him that the Brahms First Symphony isn’t a piano concerto.) But the small errors that disfigure The Label do not diminish its effectiveness as journalism, and Marmorstein’s breathless summary of Columbia’s significance is in no way overstated:

In the overlapping epochs of the 78-rpm platter, the 33-rpm vinyl disk, the cassette tape, and the compact disk, Columbia Records seemed to be everywhere. That ubiquitousness was true for no other record label. . . . Decade by decade, Columbia launched the careers of our most seminal recording artists and deposited their sound prints onto the permanent record.

All that came to an untimely end when Columbia was bought by Sony in 1987, a transaction that led in short order to the dumbing-down of the classical and jazz divisions that had been Columbia’s pride. Now that the entire recording industry has been devastated by the rise of Web-based new media, younger music lovers are largely unaware of the role that Columbia Records played in the shaping of postwar American culture. Kudos to Gary Marmorstein for telling them what they missed.

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Questions for the EU

The European Union has guidelines on ensuring protection for human rights defenders, whom it defines as people “combating cultures of impunity which serve to cloak systematic and repeated breaches of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Questions for students of a 101 course on the EU: how does the above definition square with recent developments in the Franco-Libyan relationship? With the EU’s robust relations with Egypt, despite its handling of dissidents? With Spanish Prime Minister Luis Zapatero’s words at the Arab League summit of 2005? In particular, how do the EU’s protective guidelines affect trade relations with Iran? This last is a particularly difficult question to answer, in light of the EU parliament’s condemnation of Iran’s human rights record, and the subsequent suspension on Iran’s part of the EU-Iran “dialogue on human rights.” Any thoughts?

The European Union has guidelines on ensuring protection for human rights defenders, whom it defines as people “combating cultures of impunity which serve to cloak systematic and repeated breaches of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Questions for students of a 101 course on the EU: how does the above definition square with recent developments in the Franco-Libyan relationship? With the EU’s robust relations with Egypt, despite its handling of dissidents? With Spanish Prime Minister Luis Zapatero’s words at the Arab League summit of 2005? In particular, how do the EU’s protective guidelines affect trade relations with Iran? This last is a particularly difficult question to answer, in light of the EU parliament’s condemnation of Iran’s human rights record, and the subsequent suspension on Iran’s part of the EU-Iran “dialogue on human rights.” Any thoughts?

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One Step Back, Two Steps Forward

An interesting article appeared in the Sunday New York Times updating developments in Basra. Things are not going so well in this large city in southern Iraq, where various Shiite militias are battling one another for control of political power, oil, and various criminal enterprises.

The British had prided themselves for years on having a better approach than their more heavy-handed American counterparts to counterinsurgency, but, lo and behold, four years into the war, the trends seem more positive in Anbar than in Basra.

What went wrong?

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An interesting article appeared in the Sunday New York Times updating developments in Basra. Things are not going so well in this large city in southern Iraq, where various Shiite militias are battling one another for control of political power, oil, and various criminal enterprises.

The British had prided themselves for years on having a better approach than their more heavy-handed American counterparts to counterinsurgency, but, lo and behold, four years into the war, the trends seem more positive in Anbar than in Basra.

What went wrong?

A recent military visitor from Iraq posited that the British tried a mild peacekeeping approach in an environment that instead called for a tough counterinsurgency strategy. As the Times’s Stephen Ferrell notes, “the British-led coalition forces have adopted a far less aggressive and interventionist stance than American troops have farther north.” That approach seemed to work initially because there wasn’t much violence, but it came at a cost. As Farrell writes, “critics accuse the British of simply allowing the Shiite militias free rein to carry out their intolerant Islamist agenda, which involved killing merchants who sell alcohol, driving out Christians and infiltrating state institutions and the security forces.”

Now the militias are feeling their oats and the British are feeling under siege. The palace in Basra that serves as their headquarters has become one of the most-mortared positions in all of Iraq—according to the Times, the troopers call it the “worst palace in the world.”

The British difficulties have been exacerbated by their well-publicized decision to reduce their troop levels in Iraq, and to pull back from the center of Basra to a compound located outside of town. Far from placating the armed gangs, the British decision has only emboldened them. Everyone, it seems, is determined to get a last lick in—no doubt trying to establish “anti-colonial” bona fides in the coming struggle for power.

There is a lesson to be learned here by advocates of an American troop drawdown. Even if the drawdown were to be only partial, it could easily get out of hand by creating the perception that we’re on the way out and can be attacked with impunity. As Napoleon said, “In war, moral considerations account for three-quarters, the actual balance of forces only for the other quarter.” If we set a withdrawal timetable, the moral balance will tip against us even faster than the actual balance of forces—with deadly consequences.

We can avoid that problem by sticking with the “surge,” which, as another Times article notes, is working. This one is an op-ed written by Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution, who have just returned from Iraq with a glowing report on all the progress that General David Petraeus and his soldiers are making. Pollack and O’Hanlon echo the sense of cautious optimism that I have been feeling for the past several months. That’s pretty significant coming from two Democratic analysts who, as they note, “have harshly criticized the Bush administration’s miserable handling of Iraq.”

A White House official has labeled their article “significant, and possibly climate-changing.” Let’s hope that’s the case.

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Anti-Anti-Anti-Missile Defense

As always in the realm of national security, we do not know what we do not know. But one thing we do know–perhaps not to a certainty, but to a high degree of probability–is that next year, or in the next few years at most, unless it is stopped by diplomacy or force, Iran will develop a nuclear weapon. We also know, or should know, that if we permit this catastrophe to happen, we will urgently need defensive weapons to protect ourselves and our allies.

But are programs to develop such weapons on track, or are they being held back by those who would prefer to keep us defenseless?

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As always in the realm of national security, we do not know what we do not know. But one thing we do know–perhaps not to a certainty, but to a high degree of probability–is that next year, or in the next few years at most, unless it is stopped by diplomacy or force, Iran will develop a nuclear weapon. We also know, or should know, that if we permit this catastrophe to happen, we will urgently need defensive weapons to protect ourselves and our allies.

But are programs to develop such weapons on track, or are they being held back by those who would prefer to keep us defenseless?

Much in the news recently, on account of Vladimir Putin’s harsh reaction to it, has been one European component of such a defense, involving a radar station in the Czech republic and interceptor missiles based in Poland.

But the Pentagon has also been developing an Airborne Laser. Carried aboard a Boeing 747, it would be primarily aimed at stopping shorter-range ballistic missiles that could strike allies in Europe or the Middle East, including Israel.

The actual development and testing of an Airborne Laser was first funded in 1996, and the system has made considerable progress in the decade since. Earlier this month, an aircraft equipped with a low-powered laser was able to simulate the operation of a chemical high-powered laser of the kind that is already quite workable on the ground. Here, according to airforce-technology.com, is how that high-power system would work:

The primary laser beam is generated by a megawatt Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser (COIL) located at the rear of the fuselage, which lases at 1.315 micron wavelength. The high-power laser beam travels toward the front of the aircraft through a pipe. The pipe passes through a Station 1000 bulkhead / airlock, which separates the rear fuselage from the forward cabins. The high-power beam passes through the fine-beam control system mounted on a vibration isolated optical bench. Beam pointing is achieved with very fast, lightweight steering mirrors, which are tilted to follow the target missile.

When the laser beam hits the target missile, it will heat a spot on its fuel tank, causing catastrophic failure in the missile during its boost phase, leading it to fall back with a bang onto the country that launched it.

Of course, as with any major new weapons system, there are technical problems, uncertainties, and issues involving trade-offs and costs. But the fact remains that more than thirty countries have some 10,000 or more ballistic missiles in their arsenals. Some of them are hostile. Some of them are very hostile. Though Iran is the most significant menace, it is not the entire problem.

Existing plans call for a “lethality test” of the Airborne Laser in 2009–right around the corner–entailing the actual shoot-down of a live missile. This if successful, would then allow us to use the system almost immediately in a national emergency.

Which makes one wonder all the more why the now-Democratic-controlled Congress, according to the indispensable Aviation Week & Space Technology, wants to cut funding and delay this lethality test by two years. This delay, unsurprisingly, has not been discussed in the mainstream media at all. What is it all about?

Ever since Ronald Reagan launched the Strategic Defense Initiative, widely mocked at the time by leading Democrats as a “Star Wars” fantasy, liberals have been reflexively opposed to missile defense. As the dangers have grown, many have moderated their rhetorical stance, and some have voted for experimental forays in this area. But a distinct lack of enthusiasm remains.

If the U.S. or one of its allies falls victim to a nuclear-missile attack that we are unable to avert, it will be much too late for finger-pointing at the people responsible for delaying–or killing–our defensive capabilities. It is better to do the finger-pointing now.

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Goodbye, Abe

Yesterday, the coalition led by the Liberal Democratic Party of Prime Minster Shinzo Abe lost its majority in the Upper House of the Diet, the national legislature. The LDP, with junior partner New Komeito, won 46 seats; its chief rival, the Democratic Party, won 60.

The Japanese sometimes complain that their country is not “normal.” Yet there was nothing out of the ordinary about Sunday’s landslide against the LDP, which has dominated Japan’s politics since 1955. Unlike Junichiro Koizumi, his charismatic predecessor, Abe presented a cold and diffident face to the average citizen. His central policy goals—improving relations with China and South Korea and bolstering the military capabilities of Japan—are critical tasks for any Japanese leader. But they were not high priorities for voters far more concerned about worrying economic trends.

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Yesterday, the coalition led by the Liberal Democratic Party of Prime Minster Shinzo Abe lost its majority in the Upper House of the Diet, the national legislature. The LDP, with junior partner New Komeito, won 46 seats; its chief rival, the Democratic Party, won 60.

The Japanese sometimes complain that their country is not “normal.” Yet there was nothing out of the ordinary about Sunday’s landslide against the LDP, which has dominated Japan’s politics since 1955. Unlike Junichiro Koizumi, his charismatic predecessor, Abe presented a cold and diffident face to the average citizen. His central policy goals—improving relations with China and South Korea and bolstering the military capabilities of Japan—are critical tasks for any Japanese leader. But they were not high priorities for voters far more concerned about worrying economic trends.

The Japanese economy has done relatively well under Abe’s short tenure, with growth up and unemployment down. Yet Japan is facing the same problems seen in the West, especially widening income disparity. Most Japanese think that unchecked globalization is not beneficial for them. Abe, the youngest prime minister in post-war Japan, seemed indifferent to their plight. Instead of paying attention to bread-and-butter issues and dealing forcefully with scandals in his cabinet, he spoke abstractly of building a “beautiful Japan.” That’s largely why Japanese voters hammered Mr. Abe’s party yesterday.

Hidenao Nakagawa resigned as the secretary general of the LDP, taking public responsibility for what Abe called an “utter defeat.” It seems as though the prime minister will be the next high-level casualty of yesterday’s debacle. Abe thinks a mere reshuffling of his cabinet will satisfy the electorate, but others are demanding he step down, or call immediate lower-house elections.

The Bush administration will not want to see a staunch friend like Abe leave office. Ichiro Ozawa, the head of the victorious Democratic Party, would be far less accommodating to America. But there’s nothing that Washington can do to save the now-embattled Abe. All politics in Japan these days is domestic.

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